28 January 2015

Let's Not Joke About Ebulla

This past weekend, U.S. military officials announced that the 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division headquarters, along with hundreds of other National Guard and Army Reserve units from across the nation, were no longer slated to deploy to the West African nation of Liberia this spring. This essay was written prior to that announcement.

Sgt. 1st Class Katz is preparing to go to Africa. It'll be her fourth deployment. The Minnesota National Guard's 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division headquarters has been alerted for the Ebola-response mission to Liberia. The mission is called "Operation United Assistance." I tell her it'll be a good mission—a good story. She tells me something she remembers me saying once, regarding going to Afghanistan with the division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team (2-34th BCT).

"You said something about how everything kind of fell into place, for both you and the unit," she says. "How the Red Bull boasted the longest-deployed units to Iraq ... the largest deployment of Iowans since World War II ... one of only three National Guard brigades to own battle space in Afghanistan ... This might be the only time anyone would ever see something like this."

In typical sentiment, Katz says she doesn't want to go, but also that she wants to go. I understand the push-pull, topsy-turvy, mixed feelings about pending deployments. It's heady stuff, being called up to help change the world. Citizen-soldiers get to see history in the making. It's also a burden, however. Family and friends worry. Life and job get interrupted. Embrace the suck.

"Still," I remember my father saying once or twice, "it has a certain appeal ..."

I remember Papa Sherpa coming off a U.S. Air Force Reserve rotation to Operation Desert Shield. Soon after, he put in his retirement papers. He had started his active-duty military career during the Vietnam War, as a navigator on a C-130 Hercules, flying tactical airlift missions. After a variety of other platforms and missions, he ended his career in the same way.

After his paperwork had already been filed, however, the military mission to Somalia popped up. At the time, I was relatively new to the service, and was wearing Army greens. Off at months of Army training, I'd missed the war in Kuwait. That was on my mind when I asked Dad if he regretted putting in his papers, and potentially watching his former colleagues lift off without him. "You know," he said, "this might have been one to miss ..."

"All this has happened before, and all this will happen again." The same Army officer who once tagged me with the "Sherpa" nickname was the one who recommended that I watch the rebooted Battlestar Galactica, while we were both deployed to a peacekeeping mission to the Sinai Peninsula. From that science-fiction program, I first learned the mantra of the eternal return: "All this has happened before, and all this will happen again."

Of all the lessons I learned in the Army, that phrase explains the most.

After I graduated, I swore that I'd never come back to Iowa, but I did. I returned to Iowa after Army communications school, and joined the Iowa Army National Guard. I worked a couple of community and metro newspaper jobs, and made the jump to trade magazines by the mid-1990s.

My first editorship? I kid you not: It was a trade magazine for managers of corporate, hospitality, healthcare, institutional facilities and campuses. The now-defunct publication was was called—again, I am not making this up—"Maintenance Executive."

How's that for high-falutin'?

My interest in writing about best-practices and lessons-learned stems from that experience. Twenty years ago, I was writing about the threats of Ebola, as well as other emergent diseases, on behalf of those professionals most likely to clean it up. In one memorable columnist's portrait, I was photographed wearing a suit and tie and my M17A2 protective mask. I'd borrowed the latter from my locker at the National Guard armory.

For magazine cover-story, I interviewed Richard Preston, author of the non-fiction book "The Hot Zone." Preston tells stories of three strains of Ebola, each named after the place of its discovery: Ebola Sudan, Ebola Zaire, and Ebola Reston (Va.). My family and friends took to naming the seasonal flu after the person who'd first discovered it: Ebola Jeff, Ebola Scott, Ebola Sherpa ...

Hilarious, no? I kill me.

So, Katz is off to war again. And Ebola doesn't look like as much of a joke as it was when I was young and immortal. But the Red Bull is, once again, present at the fulcrum of history. People like Katz don't want to go, but they don't want to stay at home, either. This will be the first time I'll see a Red Bull friend of mine move out smartly, post-Afghanistan.

It's not a war, but neither is it business as usual. The Red Bull is again on the attack.

Two thoughts haunt my hours:

"This one might have been one to miss."

"All this has happened before, and all this will happen again."

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